Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

Ten years ago, sharing this story would have been difficult.  Today, opening up about my personal bouts with depression over the past 26 years is essential. We don’t have a data base of exact…

Source: Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

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Depression: Yes, It Happens in the Newsroom Part I

In the summer of 2014, Robin Williams took his own life.  In the days that followed, we learned that a contributing factor was depression.

That set off the usual mad dash of journalists across the nation scrambling to find every local psychologist or psychiatrist to bring perspective on emotional illness.

That helped.  For three, possibly four weeks, we had a whirlwind of national and local conversation on the subject many still want to keep in the closet.  When that ended, television news put the topic back in the storage cabinet for a while.

Full disclosure:  I have had a serious bout with clinical depression not once but three times.  The first time happened in 1991 when I was a television news director—-not in a megamarket but in Jackson, Tn.  The second time was in 2010 while supervising a daily student cable newscast as professor of broadcast journalism at Union University.  In each instance, I needed at least six months before I resumed feeling like me.  Bout three was in 2014, a few months after the death of my father.  I spent 100 days in my hometown of Waycross, Ga., in 2013 looking after both of my parents during his ordeal.

I don’t make my experience the icebreaker of conversations with people I have never previously met.  Likewise, I do not run from an open dialogue about an illness suffered by nearly a tenth of Americans.  Those of us who have encountered depression not only can but must talk about it in an effort to help others who have it and don’t understand it.

When one is in a higher-profile profession such as television news, your on-air face and personality are what viewers see.  Their stereotyped vision of a communicator who visits in their home virtually every night filters out the reality that television newscasters are real people, too.  Journalists have bills to pay, experience challenges at home, lose loved ones and are exposed firsthand to the same types of negative news viewers often detest.

Psychological studies tell us younger people are increasingly vulnerable to depression, particularly in high-demand, high-stress professions.  Here are a few other key facts:

—-Women are more likely to have depression than men.

—-Vulnerability to depression increases with age, according to WebMD.com.

—-Mayo Clinic tells us one in five will experience some form of the disorder by the time they are 25.

Small-to-medium market news departments are populated heavily by men and women in the 22-28 age bracket.  Most of them are full of idealistic career goals, competitive fuel and boundless energy.

Still, look at the numbers: one in five young adults are likely to have experienced some form of depression by the age of 25.  Television news is a profession that can play right into the vulnerabilities.

In the mid-1980s, I flew back from the Radio-Television News Directors Association with a colleague from a much larger neighboring market.  He attended one of the same seminars as did I on stresses the newsroom brings to one’s personal life.  That session included a whirlwind, throw-on-the-dartboard exchange about depression.  Thirty years ago, the subject of emotional illness was largely compartmentalized.

“That was an interesting session,” my colleague said, “but in my newsroom or in television news in general, there’s just no room for someone with depression or any kind of emotional illness.”

I said, “Would it interest you that my father has battled depression off and on for 14 years—and he’s a minister?  I submit to you that the demands of administering a church, satisfying the sometimes fickle nature of a congregation and being on call around-the-clock in times of illness, death, or church members’ crises is every bit as stressful as running a TV newsroom.”

My friend admitted he had never pondered that contrast but I am fairly certain he didn’t buy into it.  I wonder what he thinks today.

My colleague at Union University, Dr. Joanne Stephenson, offers a weekly “Dr. Joanne” segment on our daily cable newscast “Jackson 24/7” produced by journalism students.  Dr. Joanne was a huge catalyst for my recovery from depression five years ago.  She says the newsroom can be a breeding ground for depression even in well-adjusted people.

“You have all the ingredients:  multiple deadlines, uneven schedules, frequently on call, competitive pressures, lack of sleep, difficult bosses, and repeated exposure to tragedy,” Dr. Joanne says.  “Even the best of us would struggle to maintain a balance in our lives to avoid tipping the scales toward depression.”

I am typically not a fan of The Huffington Post, but that online service offered a solid five-part series in May, “A Mental Health Epidemic in the Newsroom.”

Dr. Elana Newman of the University of Tulsa discussed journalistic stresses in the opening segment of that series.  “Almost all journalists are exposed to traumatic-stress experiences,” Dr. Newman said.  She included reporters who are among the first on the scene for automobile accidents, shootings, train derailments or other occurrences that potentially lead to critical injuries or death.

Here is another revealing irony by Gabriel Arana, who authored The HuffPost story:  “Journalists are notoriously reluctant to divulge information about themselves.”  Arana quoted from three different research studies that indicated:

—-85 percent of journalists encounter some form of work-related trauma

—-Up to 20 percent of journalists experience depression

—-Instances of nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia and anxiety occur frequently enough in journalists to take a toll.

Both of my bouts with clinical depression were largely triggered by exhaustion.  Read the textbooks about a typical Type A personality and fill in the blank with my name.  I inherited an intense work drive gene from my father.  I have a tendency to go at a pace that, candidly, is unrealistic for one individual.

In each instance, I saw the warning signs of a breakdown but was mired in that mistaken belief that I could “work myself” out of it.  I could not—-and paid the price.

I will detail more about the first bout in a later vignette.  In 2010, depression came on from a monster amount of overwork in supervising a five-a-week student newscast that can only replicate, not duplicate, the actual TV newsroom.  I failed to remind myself that I have students only for four hours a week, not 40.  Typically, they are carrying academic loads that include four other courses, all of which have a variety of demands.  Exhaustion set in and so did depression.

At the end of a noon broadcast in March 2010, Dr. Joanne waited until the students all left, looked me in the eye and said, “This……..is an intervention.”  I knew that had to happen.  I just did not know when.  Thankfully, Dr. Joanne was in the studio for an interview segment that day and pulled the trigger.  I asked how she knew I was in depression.  “I could see it in your eyes,” she said.  “You’ve been headed down this path for more than a month.”

I am an example of what happens when a journalism supervisor or administrator does what an old colleague at WRBL in Columbus, Ga., H.K. Johnston, once observed:  “Burnin’ the candle at both ends and runnin’ outta wick.”

Yet, the rank-and-file, those young, fresh out of college or three-to-six-year veteran reporters, producers and videographers are the ones on the firing line every day.  They are the ones who receive the 3 a.m. calls to cover an overnight fire or shooting.  They are the ones regularly exposed to crime or other tragedy.  They are the ones who have to find their niche in a competitive environment of egos and career-climbers.  They are the ones who encounter bosses who are sometimes under such stress to deliver ratings and performance that they neglect to get to know or understand their employees as people.

Managements of every television station in America ought to be paying attention.  The scenario I outlined in the previous paragraph and those earlier research statistics suggest the odds are at least one to three people in their newsrooms could be dealing with at least short-term depression or trauma disorders.

Before I left daily television news in the 1990s, not one station I worked for offered a specifically designated reference for counseling from a psychologist or a psychiatrist.  Some stations provided insurance that covered emotional illness; some didn’t.

Arana detailed the story of John McCusker, a New Orleans photojournalist who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina but continued to cover the destruction day after day.  The grind and exposure to the disaster took its toll.  McCusker was diagnosed with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.  As in many cases with journalists and the vast non-news public, he was reluctant to admit he was ill.

“I didn’t feel I could show weakness because there were so many brave people showing strength around me,” McCusker told Arana in the HuffPost. “There is an element of not wanting to be vulnerable, wanting to project strength.”

One of my own observations about the television news industry is its parallel to my perceptions of those in college and pro football.  So much emphasis is perpetuated on being mentally tough that admitting to depression or any form of emotional illness is unfortunately regarded as a sign of weakness.

“There’s this notion you’ve got to be tough,” McCusker told Arana. “You’re a human being — don’t forget that. No one’s expecting you to be anything more or less than that.”

Dr. Joanne frequently debunks the weakness theory or the fear factor of admitting a need for help because of a still-existing stigma attached to depression.

“You wouldn’t try to do your own surgery on a broken leg.  You wouldn’t try to deal with an abscessed tooth yourself,” she says.  “We’ve got to get over this ridiculous notion that depression or any other emotional illness is any different than a physical illness.  Depression is often caused by things related to physical illness.”

One of the issues is a failure of broadcast managements, as well as some in other fields, to recognize the emotional toll television news takes on even the strongest staff members.

Only two of the stations for which I worked over the years offered a membership at a YMCA (in the era before fitness centers began to emerge on every corner).  At least in those instances, opportunities were available for physical exercise that is a strong antidote to stress.

Never was a local psychologist contracted for an in-house seminar to aid staffs on other countermeasures to reduce tension and stress that lead to depression.  Such a move may actually save companies money in employee illnesses and absences.

In my succeeding vignettes, I will share more of my own journey with depression during my years as a broadcast journalist and a journalism professor.  I will also approach depression from the perspective of young broadcasters, from mistakes managements make in recognizing warning signs of and possible interventions for emotional illness, and proposals to the entire industry on how to deal with a real illness that affects more people in television than anyone cares to admit.

Robin Williams died from the extreme ravages of emotional depression.  We talked about mental illness for a short while because he was Robin Williams.

We should not need the death of an international celebrity to have an intelligent, sensitive and open dialogue about emotional illness—-including its potential impact on television newsrooms.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Coping with Tragedy: Yes, Viewers, Newscasters Do Have a Heart

I have never set foot in Missoula, Montana, though people have told me the country is beautiful there.

I had a loose connection with Missoula 35 years ago.  The company that purchased WTVM in Columbus, Ga., where I was an anchor and reporter, was headquartered in Missoula.  The new owners did not enter the building wearing cowboy hats.  One had a distinct accent when he talked about “how we do things in Muntenna.”

Other than its geography, life in Missoula may be comparable to that in Jackson, Tn., where I have lived for the past 25 years.  Both cities have populations of slightly fewer than 70,000.  Both are located along fairly large rivers.   Health care and education provide the largest sources of employment in each town.

One significant difference between the two is in violent crime:  two years ago, Missoula had one murder.  Jackson had 11.  Rare is the night when Missoula television news leads with a homicide.

The evening of May 6, one of those rare evenings developed.  Only not of the ilk imagined in the worst nightmares of anyone working in the newsroom at KTMF.

For those who have never worked in a television newsroom, the police monitor is the equivalent of a living person.  Reporters, producers and videographers commit numerical crime investigation codes to memory.  Assignment editors, arguably the most stressed individuals in any news operation, often have one ear peeled to the monitor while dispatching crews to a scene.

Two weeks ago on a Wednesday evening, if events unfolded as they typically do, a call ensued on the police radio at KTMF.  The street address was 314 Brooks Street.

Missoula is currently the 165th largest television market in America.  Only 45 markets are smaller.  Cities the size of Missoula have a touch of Mayberry.  People tend to know more people.  A trip to a Walmart takes less than 15 minutes.  Television newscasters are not just local celebrities.  They become members of the family.   The average Joe and Mabel feels comfortable approaching an anchor or reporter by first name in Albertsons or Safeway.

In a television market the size of Missoula, the newsroom is frequently populated by young journalists in their first jobs, all hoping to climb a ladder they hope will take them to the big-time or at least the medium-time.  Some members of the anchor team are people who have chosen to make their homes in a smaller city because their spouses and children have a comfort with the landscape.

When journalists are in their twenties, few have dealt with death.  The percentages of them who have lost a parent or immediate family member are small.  In Missoula, since murders are so infrequent, deaths reported on KTMF usually involve prominent citizens or past political leaders who pass from natural causes or bouts with cancer.

I was not in the newsroom at KTMF on May 6.  However, I have little doubt more than one voice was hushed if the words “314 Brooks Street” rang a bell.

That was the address of KTMF news director Kalee Scolatti.  Kalee was the exception to the rule of most people her age in television news.  In reading news accounts in the last two weeks, I learned that Kalee was a graduate with honors of the University of Montana in 2005.  She went to work for one of the local television stations after graduation.  Stories tell of her work in production that eventually segued into the newsroom and culminated in the role as KTMF’s chief news officer.

Kalee pursued a career track that I often tell my students at Union University is an admirable one.  She stayed home.  I told a group recently, “You don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to be a success in broadcast news.  Wherever your journey takes you, you may find the town that becomes home for you and it may be a smaller town.  You won’t make as much money as you will in a larger market, but as long as you work hard and you’re happy, you can be an equal servant to your community in Panama City as one is in Philadelphia.”

No news directors, no anchors, no producers, no journalists worth their credentials ever harbor a desire to become the story.  Some viewers don’t like us because we often have to report unpleasant occurrences.  Some hold grudges because an investigative light is often cast on political or other community leaders involved in wrongdoing.  Those alleged perpetrators have friends.  Friends are often loyal even when their pals are guilty of malfeasance.

Even still, in the Missoulas, the Jacksons, the Dothans or the Macons of the world, viewers tend to look on television newscasters as people they would love to ask over for supper.  Carol Goldsmith of WYFF in Greenville, S.C., is one such news anchor.  Former WYFF producer Michelle Baker once told me, “Women love Carol because they know she is a mother and she connects with other moms.”

Kalee Scolatti was a mother of three.   In reading some painful narratives during recent days, we learned that Kalee was having a troubled personal life.  Her husband was no longer in the home.  Yet, no one could have foreseen the events of May 6.

In the last decade, news reports on domestic violence have become a standard.  They were even before the sordid stories unfolding from the National Football League last year.  Some cities were slow to answer the bell because small towns are supposed to be immune from such things.  Yet, in 2015, one might suspect even Mayberry might house a couple of domestic abusers.

Last fall, my students—-whose daily newscast Jackson 24/7 is a staple of local cable—-engaged in a week-long emphasis on domestic violence in West Tennessee.  They learned as much as they reported and interviewed.  They learned domestic abuse cuts across every racial and cultural boundary, every age bracket, and every occupation.  Sometimes, the results end in tragedy.

In February 2014, those same students were forced to deal with an incident that will forever remain with them.  Some of them were barely 20 or 21.

Union University does not have the enrollment of The University of Montana.  Union is a private Southern Baptist institution, not a state school.  For more than a century, students have referred to “the Union bubble,” an imaginary shield that they sometimes mistakenly believe shields them from the real world beyond campus.

Violent crime does not happen at Union University.  At least it did not until the morning of February 12, 2014.  A music major with a healthy set of friends was found dead of a bullet wound in her car on the parking lot of a building across from the main Union campus.  Olivia Greenlee was to have graduated the following May.  She was engaged to marry fellow Union student Charlie Pittman last August 9.

Three days after Olivia’s body was found, Pittman was charged with her first degree murder.  He has pleaded innocent.  A judge has given him a final deadline of June 8 to change that plea.  If Pittman maintains innocence, his trial is scheduled to begin September 27.

Paigh Lytle and Kelsey Graeter were the anchor team for the noon edition of Jackson 24-7 the morning after Greenlee was found dead.  As was the case with many Union students, Paigh and Kelsey knew one or both of the two young people involved in the tragedy.

At the time, investigators still had not ruled Greenlee’s death a homicide.  Outgoing Union president David Dockery agreed to appear with Paigh and Kelsey on that noon newscast.  When he met me in the hall before entering the studio, I knew from the expression on his face that Union was about encounter a first and not one that would be included in the school’s future public relations materials.

Paigh and Kelsey appeared shaken but asked the difficult questions of Dockery.  To his credit, he answered every one of them, most of them without the typical p.r. spin one might expect of someone in his position.

When the broadcast was over, Paigh and Kelsey were both emotionally over-wrought.  Both had to leave to compose themselves.  When they returned, we had a discussion about a painful lesson they had just learned.  If you pursue journalism for a career, at some point you will likely have to report a story that challenges everything that is within you because you are acquainted with or are friends with the central figure or figures involved.  One simply does not expect that to happen as a junior in college.  Regardless of where Paigh or Kelsey or their Jackson 24-7 colleagues ultimately land, their world was forever changed.  The Union bubble had burst.

The culture in any young television newsroom is often comparable to that of people in any profession who have to work as a team.  Because most of the reporters are under 30, they have an emotional sense of invincibility.  Regardless of the menu of any given day’s news, some espirit de corps is required to deliver the nightly output.  Some days, people like the news director; other days, people would like to wish the news director into a cornfield, a la the classic Billy Mumy episode of Twilight Zone.

I was not in the newsroom at KTMF or one of those in the news car that drove to 314 Brooks Street May 6.  I do know that the sense of detachment that occurs from covering many tragedies all too quickly evaporated.  Once word spread via phone or texts to others in the newsroom and those who were already home for the evening, the culture of KTMF was forever changed.

Kalee Scolatti and a family friend, Anthony Dupras, were dead.  As we learned from police reports in the days that followed, Kalee’s estranged husband entered the home.  At some point, she called Dupras, whom she had frequently referred to as a brother.  Investigators say the evidence indicated when Dupras arrived, Nicholas Scolatti took out a handgun and shot Kalee, Dupras and himself.  Nick Scolatti died two days later.  The Scolattis left behind three daughters.  Dupras had two sons.

How the anchors of KTMF managed to deliver the news to Missoula that night I will never know.  Active news directors aren’t supposed to die, much less become the victims of an alleged murder.

We live in a vastly different world than the one in which I became a rookie reporter in the mid-1970s.  Seven years ago, Anne Pressly—a reporter-anchor for KATV in Little Rock—was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in her apartment.  Last December, Patrick Crawford—a morning weathercaster at KCEN in Waco, Tx., was shot three times on the station parking lot.  He survived.  In February, San Diego sportscaster Kyle Kraska was shot ten times through the back window of his car.  A month later, Kraska miraculously returned to his job at KFMB CBS 8.

Within a day and a half, the story of Kalee Scolatti’s untimely death was in The New York Daily News, The Los Angeles Times, and the U.K.’s The Daily Mail and The Guardian.  Missoula rarely is the locale of news outside of Montana.

Often, viewers mistakenly are of the opinion that broadcast journalists have no heart and no soul.  They are moreso of that mind of network newscasters, but the adversarial relationships occasionally filter down to the local level.  As one of my former students and long-time WBBJ anchor Keli McAlister told a gathering at Union last year, “There’s no textbook that prepares you for the first time you take a phone call from an angry viewer.”

Having been on the working journalist side and in an administrative role for 19 years, I am acutely aware of the emotions of a newsroom.  People on a news staff have bills to pay, have to deal with frozen pipes and stopped-up toilets, have worries about children, struggle to determine how to finance college for those same kids, battle illnesses, experience depression (a subject for an upcoming blog entry) and deal with deaths in the family.

When a fellow staff member, whether the boss or a peer, not only dies but is apparently murdered, one does not simply put on the game face and report the facts.  Once I read the story of Kalee’s death, I knew hearts were breaking in the KTMF newsroom.  Those hearts would not mend in a matter of days.

Union is a Christian university.  We believe in God.  We believe in prayer.  I told my students of the tragedy in Missoula.  I asked them all to pray for everyone in the KTMF newsroom, as well as the families affected by the tragedy.  They did.  As I told them, “You want to be where they are soon.  Just as we experienced with the sad story of Olivia and Charlie last year, those people are hurting.  They don’t know you but they need to know others are thinking of them.”

I knew no one on the KTMF staff, but I reached out via e-mail to the first anchor on the station website, Angela Marshall.  I shared the story of what we experienced 15 months earlier and the emotional stress for Paigh and Kelsey.  Here is an excerpt of my communication:

 “Unfortunately, times come when you have to tell unpleasant stories to a waiting audience even if your heart is breaking inside. I know many questions will continue to be asked that end up with that one-word question “why?” in the next days and weeks concerning Kalee’s death. 

         The answers may not come to the emotions of your team as quickly as the answers will for police investigators.  You can’t just turn off the pain and the grief inside, all the while having to maintain a sense of professionalism to your audience.

        Just know that one who has sat in your seats for many years and has been teaching a sense of journalistic and personal values to college students for 23 years is thinking of all of you and has you in my prayers.  My students likewise offered a prayer for your entire news team after our broadcast today.”

A few hours later, I heard from David Winter, Angela’s co-anchor:

“I left the business for about 20 years and recently rejoined the Fourth Estate,” he wrote.  “Having reported last in San Francisco before leaving the business, I was exposed to a lot of crime reporting.  Now that I have “retired” to Montana… and for the most part to the anchor desk… it was unusual circumstances that led me to be the one on the scene when I learned my friend and news director had been killed.”

David offered me something to pass along to my students.  “As painful as this story was to report… EVERY tragedy that we cover is just as painful for the people on whom we are reporting,” he wrote.  “Disassociation with the stories and the people we cover is often used as a defense-mechanism to protect our own feelings.  But too much disassociation can lead to callousness, and a disservice to our stories, their subjects, our viewers, and perhaps most importantly to ourselves and our personal relationships.”

How right he is.  An occasional rogue reporter views tragedy as a stepping stone to the next big job.  Most I know, thankfully, have a breaking point because they do have a heart for the people who are victims of murders, fires, or domestic violence.  That’s not a loss of objectivity.  That’s being a human being.

As I write this, KTMF’s online page now offers stories on an upcoming school bond vote in Missoula, students in Bozeman who are building wheelchairs for children in Mexico, and a clinic which serves people who cannot afford proper dental care.  The world and Missoula have had to move forward.

Yet, still on the “Most Popular” bar is a link to Remembering Kalee Scolatti.  A video remains with a montage of the good memories of Kalee and what she meant to her station, her colleagues and her friends.

Eventually, Remembering Kalee Scolatti will disappear from that website.  Yet, the memories of Kalee will never go away from the hearts and minds of the people who work for KTMF.  After the night of May 6, the lives of those who make television and report news every night to Missoula and its neighboring cities and counties will indeed never be the same.